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How Cortisol Secretion Can Lead to Weight Gain

Updated on July 19, 2017

Fight or Flight

Our modern lifestyle subjects us to an extraordinary amount of stress on a daily basis. Some stress is beneficial, some harmful.

"Fight or flight" is the body's natural response to stress. It worked extremely well for our hunter-gatherer ancestors' survival. This response does not differentiate between fighting a saber-toothed tiger or the emotional, financial, relational stress the 21st century dishes out.

Our "primal" brain still interprets today's persistent, low-level stress as a survival threat that warrants a "fight or flight" response. The body still thinks you must survive at all costs.

During times of physical and psychological stress, cortisol is secreted. This "stress hormone" enables the body to respond and adapt to the stresses of daily life. Like most hormones, it serves the body well. Released in small doses, cortisol helps maintain the immune system.

Cost of Sustained High Cortisol Levels

Over time, however, the persistent release of cortisol at a high level may lead to such things as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and high blood pressure. It can gradually tear your body down and hasten the aging process by:

  • destroying healthy muscle and bone
  • slowing down healing and normal cell regeneration
  • impeding the production of vital hormones
  • impairing digestion, metabolism and mental function
  • interfering with healthy endocrine function
  • weakening the immune system

In a study done by the University of California San Francisco, researchers suggest that there is a habitual component to stress and weight gain. When we experience chronic stress, we have a tendency to self-medicate with "comfort foods" that contain sugar and fat. According to UCSF researchers, this "dampens down" our stress response system which can promote the storage of deep abdominal fat leading to the risk of heart disease or diabetes.

Break the Cycle

Here's the good news...there are ways to break the cycle and stop the weight gain:

  1. Exercise - the best stress-buster. Not only does it burn calories, but it produces a cascade of beneficial biochemicals and controls insulin and sugar levels.
  2. Eat a balanced diet and don't skip meals - consume 5-6 small meals per day. This helps keep blood sugar levels steady.
  3. Relax - similar to exercise, it produces chemicals that counter the affects of stress.
  4. Snack on high fiber foods - eat vegetables, fruit and whole grains.
  5. Avoid alcohol and cigarettes.
  6. Take natural supplements - stress can deplete important nutrients such as B-complex and C vitamins as well as calcium and magnesium.

Stress Reduction Strategies

It's important to actively cultivate stress reduction habits to prevent weight gain and reduce the risk factors. Women in the UCSF study who greatly reduced their stress tended to have the most loss of deep belly fat. The American Heart Association offers positive healthy habits that can protect you from the harmful effects of stress:

  • Connect daily with family and friends
  • Engage in regular physical activity
  • Accept what you cannot change
  • Laugh
  • Give up bad habits
  • Slow down
  • Get enough sleep
  • Get organized
  • Give back
  • Try not to worry

Incorporating these simple strategies into your life should make staying fit during stressful times much easier. When you feel less stressed and more in control of your behaviors, you may find it easier to stick to healthy eating and exercise habits.


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    • married2medicine profile image

      Funom Theophilus Makama 

      4 years ago from Europe

      Woooow! I am just so so enriched with the quality medical hubs I have read today... great hub... Hoping to read more creative contents from you. Well said and I just can't agree more.



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